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Februar y / March 2015

KERN BUSINESS JOURNAL

37

Human Resources

‘Telepressure’ poses problems for workers, bosses By Holly Culhane

T

his workplace malady has been around for many years. But it has grown so big that it has acquired its own name – telepressure. Long recognized as a potential legal problem for employers, telepressure is now believed to be making employees sick and cutting productivity. In a report recently released in the “Journal of Occupational Health Psychology,” two researchers at the Northern Holly Culhane Illinois University coined the term to describe a worker’s urge to respond immediately to emails, particularly from colleagues and bosses. A growing number of workers “have trouble cognitively letting it go,” said Larissa K. Barber, an assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the study that collected data from 303 individuals who said they quickly respond to emails during weekdays, weekends, vacation days and even sick days. The researchers linked obsessive email responding to burnout. Workers with high levels of telepressure lacked energy, felt fatigued, were unfocused and reported having poor sleep quality, health problems and higher rates of absenteeism. Barber concluded that the demand to be constantly “connected” could hurt employees’ productivity. A 2008 Pew Internet and American Life Project study noted that workers now are more likely to check their email outside of normal working hours. Fifty percent of employed email users said they checked their work-related email on the weekends. In subsequent surveys, the number has climbed to over 80 percent. Technological advances have created a 24/7 workforce in which employees are “perpetually” working. When their shifts end, many workers remain at their bosses’ beck and call, responding to emails and fielding cell phone calls, no matter where they are or what time of day. The lines between working and not working have blurred, or in some cases, disappeared altogether. Barber blames workplace culture for increasing telepressure, noting workers are “getting implicit and explicit cues – ‘this is what you should be doing to be a good employee.’” In addition to the physical and mental toll this is taking on workers, there are legal and financial risks to companies. In recent years, employees have filed lawsuits demanding to be paid for this after-hour work. Some

companies have responded by setting strict limits on company email and cell phone use. One company actually turned off employees’ access to its email system after hours to give workers “real” time off. With controversy growing over “wage theft,” which is a general category of complaints alleging employees are not being paid for the hours worked, telepressure is likely to receive increased scrutiny from legislators and the courts. Prudent employers should take steps now to address telepressure. • Develop policies that set ground rules, including reasonable expectations for email response time. For example, is a 48-hour response during business hours required for all company emails? Whatever the ground rules are, they should be stated and understood by both supervisors and employees. • Assure non-exempt employees are paid properly for the time they check email outside of regular work hours. If such time (which often results in overtime) is not approved by the employer, ensure that non-exempt employees understand the policy. Communicate this information to them in writing and maintain a signed copy in their personnel file.    • Specific emails should include instructions for response. For example: Please let me know by next Monday. • Flag “urgent” or demand an “ASAP response” only when a situation is truly urgent or resolution of an issue cannot be delayed. • Encourage workers to “disconnect.” Let them know that they will not be judged by their ability and willingness to respond immediately to every email from the boss. Barber also noted that workers can take steps to reduce their telepressure: • Turn off both the sound and visual notifications on mobile devices. Stop jumping at every ping. • Set specific times of day when you check emails. If you check on weekends and after-hours, limit the checking to a specific time. Let others know when those times are. • If possible, set a “no interruption time” during the workday to allow yourself to concentrate on harder tasks. The electronic technology we utilize today is most certainly a benefit to the efficiency of our organizations, but we must be careful it doesn’t rule our lives. Holly Culhane is president of the Bakersfield-based human resources consulting firm P.A.S. Associates and P.A.S. Investigations.  She can be contacted through her website PASassociates.com and through the PAS Facebook page.

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